Monday, September 10, 2007
TIFF 2007: VEXILLE
VEXILLE (2007, Japan)
D: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
2077. Ten years after Japan withdraws from the U.N. in opposition to legislation banning continued development of advanced robotics and biotechnology, the entire country has become an impenetrable fortress: no one gets in, no one gets out.
The discovery of a human limb made up of an unknown artificial biology—severed from his own body by a Japanese agent trying to shake off the film's exo-suited heroine clinging to it as the pair dangle from the wing of an airplane that has just torn through a towering chateau (!) on U.S. soil in the film's jaw-dropping opening sequence—forces the American government to greenlight a covert infiltration using members of S.W.O.R.D., a high-tech special forces unit clad in gadget laden battle armor.
The chosen super-soldiers have got a three minute window, and they're almost immediately hit by a violent welcoming party, but one of them makes it through. She's Vexille (voiced by Meisa Kuroki), and she soon discovers the entire country is a barren (and flat!) wasteland, with once-pulsing Tokyo nothing more than a vast, teeming, shantytown populated by the victims of a government biotechnology experiment gone horribly, morally south.
In a brilliant set-up for the climax, Vexille's commander and his minions are briefly able to run surveillance of the secretive country, but a biometric scan reveals only two actual human beings among the hundreds of thousands clearly populating the former metropolis, including those aiding Vexille in her mission, which suddenly takes on a much greater importance for the future of mankind.
Director Sori (billed this way on screen), the effects director on Shinji Aramaki's groundbreaking APPLESEED (2004), takes the helm for this gorgeously grim cyberpunk ethics lesson. The moral implications of man and machine reaches its apex here: this is a world in which science has gone far beyond the melding of man and machine into the realm of slowly evolving mankind into machines via a cyber-virus disguised a Heavy-Industry controlled government as a cure for another less-threatening malaise. In VEXILLE, the final vestiges of humanity are wiped out during a few moments of agonizing convulsions, and the newly-minted android is ready for conversion into just about any variety of domestic or military machinery. This ain't your afterschool anime, kiddies.
Character design here is more fully developed than technology allowed on APPLESEED; character faces in particular are much more naturalistic and, because the story demands it, ethnically correct. And where the earlier film dazzled with its gleaming mega-city and shiny robots, VEXILLE's animators have applied the same attention to detail to the crowded Tokyo slum, which resembles nothing so much as a bustling city-wide street market rich with telling details: rusted sheetmetal, weathered wood, a cobbled together existence for a people who are all to aware they're soon to lose the last remnants of their culture, their humanity.
Of course, like APPLESEED, VEXILLE also has exo-suits, albeit pared-down versions, and they're cool and shiny and loaded with options, but the film's undoubted standouts are the "jags," humoungous, screaming, burrowing wasteland worms made up almost entirely of scrap metal and failed "experiments," cast-off robots and machinery that, in assimilation, finally find a purpose: to assimilate more of the same, ultimately inside the massive barriers that surround Tokyo. The jags also figure heavily in VEXILLE's signature setpiece, in which Vexille and rebel leader Maria and her motley, dwindling crew undertake a hair-raising, theatre-rumbling mission to infiltrate the offshore headquarters of the company responsible for virtually ending the Japanese race. It's a sequence packed to exploding with rapid-fire action, incredible detail and an ever-escalating series of seemingly insurmountable threats, all set to a pounding techno score by APPLESEED maestro Paul Oakenfold. Indeed, the film pushes things a bit too far during the final moments of this sequence, with one limping character chasing another limping character who has just survived the inferno of a full-speed helicopter crash. But it's a minor offense, and that might be more easily overlooked on the small screen which, somewhat sadly, is probably where the majority of westerners will be able to experience it.
One thing's for certain: with animation technology now capable of creating such richly, minutely detailed environments and such subtle degrees of character realism, and also capable of emulating the language of live-action so convincingly that you nearly forget you're watching a cartoon, the dawn of a new anime age may be just around the corner.